Non-Cognitivism or Metaphysical Primacy: What's the Better Strategy?
Your method of challenging theistic apologetics is to expose the theist's commitment to metaphysical subjectivism. This is a powerful approach because it shows the theist's contradictions for what they are. But I wonder if Rand's argument that 'God' isn't even a valid concept isn't a more devastating approach… Rand's argument was, in essence, her own version of the argument on non-cognitivism (or the meaningless of religious discourse) based on her theory of concept formation.
In the case of the fact that “God” isn’t a valid concept, here’s what Rand had to say:
Prof. D: … And what common features of particulars are retained in order to get the concept “God” –
AR: I would have to refer you to a brief passage about invalid concepts [page 49]. This is precisely one, if not the essential one, of the epistemological objections to the concept “God.” It is not a concept. At best, one could say it is a concept in the sense in which a dramatist uses concepts to create a character. It is an isolation of actual characteristics of man combined with the projection of impossible, irrational characteristics which do not arise from reawlity – such as omnipotence and omniscience.
Besides, God isn’t even supposed to be a concept: he is sui generis, so that nothing relevant to man or the rest of nature is supposed, by the proponents of that viewpoint, to apply to God. A concept has to involve two or more similar concretes, and there is nothing like God. He is supposed to be unique. Therefore, by their own terms of setting up the problem, they have taken God out of the conceptual realm. An quite properly, because he is out of reality. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 148)
So given this, one can rightly point out that “God” is not a valid concept, but the theist – if he’s aware of these distinctions – could easily agree and say that “God” is a proper name rather than a concept integrating two or more similar concretes. This of course does not stop theists from treating “God” as a concept – in fact, many times apologists treat their god as if it were a concept. Consider the following statement:
The basic structure of Christianity – creation, fall, redemptive revelation, redemption, and final judgment – can be directly deduced from the concept of an absolute God… (Mike Warren, Christian Civilization is the Only Civilization – In a Sense, Of Course)
Of course, theists will resist this interpretation of their statements, and if called on it will likely insist that their god is not just a concept. I’m reminded of the following exchange between George H. Smith and Greg Bahnsen in their radio debate. Smith asks Bahnsen an important question:
Smith: “Is God an abstraction, Greg?”
Bahnsen: “Uh no, God is a personal, non-physical being.”
Smith: “Non-physical? Could you be more specific? I mean, non-existence is non-physical as well. So how do we distinguish God from non-existence?”
Bahnsen: “Well, obviously, you uh distinguish God, a non-physical being, from say the concept of love, or say the concept of number, or the laws of physics or the laws of logic, you distinguish them according to their characteristics. God is a person, makes choices, and does things. Numbers do not.”
It should be particularly noted, therefore, that only a system of philosophy that takes the concept of an absolute God seriously can really be said to be employing a transcendental method… The opponent of Christianity will long ago have noticed that we are frankly prejudiced, and that the whole position is "biblicistic." On the other hand, some fundamentalists may have feared that we have been trying to build up a sort of Christian philosophy without the Bible. Now we may say that if such be the case, the opponent of Christianity has sensed the matter correctly. The position we have briefly sought to outline is frankly taken from the Bible. And this applies especially to the central concept of the whole position, viz., the concept of an absolute God. Nowhere else in human literature, we believe, is the concept of an absolute God presented.,, It thus appears that we must take the Bible, its conception of sin, its conception of Christ, and its conception of God and all that is involved in these concepts together, or take none of them. (p. 517; italics original)
Either way, though, there is a problem in so far as Objectivism is concerned. And this is not a problem which the theist can simply dismiss as internal to Objectivism, since the problem is rooted in the manner in which the human mind works, and everyone must work with his mind. Whether “God” is supposed to be a concept or a proper name, it is being used as a mental symbol to refer to something that is supposed to be extra-mental, something supposedly existing independent of the mind of the believer. It’s supposed to refer to something which exists objectively, rather than to a figment of the believer’s imagination. So right here the theist is employing the primacy of existence whether he realizes it or not, and in so doing he is in a sense “borrowing” from a non-Christian metaphysical position.
Given these facts, certain questions come up which need to be contended with, whether or not one is an Objectivist. For instance, to what specifically is this mental symbol supposed to refer? The theist will of course say it refers to a supernatural conscious being which has all sorts of various attributes and accomplishments, such as (in the case of attributes) omniscience, infallibility, absolute sovereignty, infiniteness, etc., and (in the case of accomplishments) the creation of the universe, the atonement for sins, etc. So the word “God” (whether concept or proper name) is supposed to refer to or denote this supernatural thing which is said to exist independent of any human being’s consciousness.
The question then becomes: by what means does the theist have awareness of this supernatural being? One issue needs to be clarified at this point: does he claim to be aware of this supernatural being directly? Or, does he just “know of” it by means of inference from other things of which he has direct awareness? It’s not always clear which position a particular theist holds given certain statements he may make, or his treatment of the matter. Some seem to act as if they have direct awareness of their god, as you and I have direct awareness of objects we perceive with our senses. If the theist says he has direct awareness of his god, by what means does he have this direct awareness? Presumably it cannot be by means of sense perception, since the word “God” is supposed to refer to something imperceptible to human beings: it’s invisible, it’s immaterial, we cannot see it, we cannot touch it, we cannot hear it (though various biblical passages, particularly in the Old Testament suggest that some individuals, such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, etc, did have the ability or opportunity to see this god or hear its voice). The point here is that, if we cannot have direct awareness of this supernatural being by means of sense perception (and descriptions of the Christian god preclude this ability), then by what means does the believer have direct awareness of it (if he claims to have such awareness of his god)? This is a question for the believer to answer. Whatever answer he gives, supposing he sticks with the position that he has direct awareness of his god, we should inquire as to how we can distinguish the means which he proposes from his imagination, and how we can reliably distinguish between what he calls “God” and what he may merely be imagining. This is a common course of inquiry in my writings, and so far I’ve not seen any good answers to it from theists. It should be pointed out at this point, in the interest of answering Madmax’s question, that this leads back to the issue of metaphysical subjectivism: is the theist confusing the contents of his consciousness (some of which may have an imaginative basis and therefore subjective in nature) with what actually exists, with reality?
The alternative to having direct awareness of this alleged supernatural being, would be to infer its existence from other things of which one has direct awareness. This leads us to argumentation. When individuals like William Lane Craig present arguments which are intended to conclude that a god exists, they are implicitly acknowledging that we do not have direct awareness of what they call “God,” that we need to infer its existence by some course of reasoning, by implication of certain premises which they put forward and endorse (e.g., the universe is not eternal and needed a cause, or the world exhibits design and therefore there must have been a designer, etc.). An argument of course consists of premises which are supposed to support a conclusion. So at this point it’s fair game to ask the believer what his starting point is. Some seem to think that “God” is their starting point. But this would render any argument intended to conclude that a god exists viciously circular; it would beg the question, since the existence of their god is admittedly assumed from the very beginning. That takes us back to the previous alternative: does the believer claim to have direct awareness of what he calls “God”? If the believer identifies something other than his god as his starting point, what is it, and how does he traverse from what he identifies as his starting point to the conclusion that his god exists? At this point, we can raise the issue of metaphysical primacy, and ask if he is aware that there is a proper relationship between consciousness and its objects, and whether or not everything he is telling us is consistent with the inescapable implication present in any affirmation of a truth that the objects of consciousness exist independent of consciousness. After all, to say “God exists,” is to make a statement about reality which presumably obtains independent of the speaker’s wishes, preferences, imagination, ignorance, etc. So again the issue of metaphysical primacy is in play here. How does the theist address it? Is his assumption of the primacy of existence (such as when he makes a statement about reality which is not supposed to reflect anyone’s wishing or preferences about the state of affairs it references) consistent with his god-belief claims? I don’t think it is.
Do you think it is better to show that the god-concept is a meaningless term that literally refers to nothing (as no positive attributes can *ever* be attached to it) first and then get into the argument from the primacy of existence? Or do you think that the fundamental argument against theism is to establish the primacy of existence first?
But this does not mean that non-cognitivism is off limits by any means. If a theist invokes the word “God,” it’s certainly valid to ask what it is supposed to denote. If the theist objects to this, it may be that he’s trying to hide something. Why else would he have a problem with this? He could take the Reformed route and claim that we already know his god, but this would simply be another claim for him to validate. Now he not only has to validate his claim that a god exists, he now has to validate the claim that everyone knows his god. If the theist has a hard time explaining what the word “God” refers to, this alone would seem to indicate a problem for the claim that everyone knows his god.
My only point is that such discussions are apt to delay getting to the more fundamental issue, which is the issue of metaphysical primacy. It should be borne in mind that the primacy of existence is the root of the concept of objectivity, and any claim about reality attempts to draw on the concept of objectivity as the proper orientation between consciousness and the universe of objects, whether legitimately (as in the case of mundane claims about the world, such as “human beings exist” or “there’s a sale at Penny’s”) or illicitly (such as god-belief claims).
To recap, the basic questions you might pose to theists include the following:
1) To what is the word “God” supposed to refer?
2) Does the theist claim to be directly aware of what he calls “God”? If so, can he identify the means by which he thinks he has direct awareness of what he calls “God”? If not, then question 3) below:
3) Does the theist claim to infer its existence from something else of which he has direct awareness? If so, what is this something else of which he has direct awareness and from which he has inferred the existence of his god?
4) If the theist neither has direct awareness of his god nor claims to have inferred its existence from something else of which he does have direct awareness, then can he identify some alternative to these as the means by which he has knowledge of his god? (E.g., did he just read about it in a storybook?)
5) In regard to whatever answer the theist gives to any of these questions, what do his answers assume to be the proper orientation his consciousness and the objects of his awareness? Does he assume that his claims are true because he wishes that they are true? Or that he believes them to be true? Or does he claim to believe them because he thinks they are true independent of what he wishes and believes? If this latter position is the case, how does he explain this in light of the specifics of his god-belief claims, which portray the universe of objects as conforming to the dictates of a supernatural consciousness?
I ask because it seems to me that the epistemological argument against the god-concept itself might be a better place to start before getting to the metaphysical arguments that deal with the subject-object relationship.
Lastly, have you ever heard of any "good" objections to the non-cognitivism argument?
I’m not sure if this will satisfy Madmax’s questions. But hopefully it will inspire further discussion, which is why I am responding to his questions in a separate post.
by Dawson Bethrick